Talking Campus Free Speech on Capitol Hill
A House hearing last week may not change the world, but it may be a start.
On July 27, two House subcommittees held a joint hearing on “Challenges to Freedom of Speech on College Campuses.” Congressman James Raskin (D-MD) called it “the most fascinating hearing” he’s attended during his his six months in office. It was fascinating, for what it brought out both about the alarming reality of American higher education today and about the determination of some people on the left to deny or obscure that reality.
That determination was on display from the outset. Val Demings (D-FL), a black woman and former police chief of Jacksonville, professed to recognize the problem on U.S. campuses and to be a strong defender of the First Amendment. But she was quick to insist that the real “clear and present danger” on campuses doesn’t involve the shutting down of “high-profile speakers like Ann Coulter” but “the increase in white supremacist hate groups.” She recounted a recent incident at American University in Washington, D.C., where somebody hung bananas on nooses from trees, apparently a racist response to the election of a female black student, Taylor Dumpson, as student-government president. Dumpson, who sat in the audience at the hearing, had also been the target of “cyberbullying” that Demings characterized as “unprotected hate speech.” The real problem on campuses, Deming concluded, is “criminal acts being wrapped in banners of free speech.”
The banana incident would come up again several times during the nearly three-hour-long hearing, even though this isolated event had nothing to do with the actual topic of the hearing.
At one point during the hearing, one of the Democratic members complained that the Republicans had picked four of the five persons giving testimony. This was surprising, because only one of those five, Ben Shapiro, is a self-identified Republican or conservative, and three of the others – Nadine Strossen, a law professor and former head of the ACLU; Michael Zimmerman, former provost at Evergreen State College in Oregon (setting of the current controversy surrounding Professor Bret Weinstein); and Frederick Lawrence, National Commissioner at the Anti-Defamation League – were largely in denial about the extent to which American colleges are dominated by authoritarian leftists. Yes, they all repeatedly, if sometimes vaguely, expressed support for free speech, rejected “safe spaces” and “free-speech zones,” and agreed that even “hate speech” should be permissible as long as it did not shade over into “hate crime.” But they also made troubling assertions.
Strossen, for example, testified that she, the ACLU, and the Southern Poverty Law Center are “all on the same page” when it comes to these matters. Well, if she’s on the same page as the ACLU, which condemned the YouTube video mendaciously blamed by Obama and Hillary for the Benghazi killings, and the SPLC, which is a far-left smear machine masquerading as a human-rights organization (and which has named the David Horowitz Freedom Center as a hate group), game over. Asked by Jim Jordan (R-OH) if most efforts to shut down free speech have been aimed at conservatives, Strossen was at first only willing to admit that this was true of “most of the well-publicized” cases. When pressed, she admitted that, well, yes, most people on campuses are on the left, and the majority of victims are, indeed, non-leftists.
Zimmerman, for his part, denied that most American professors seek to propagandize for leftist views or punish conservative ones. “Very rarely,” he said, do professors force their own ideologies on students. Lawrence agreed. He also concurred with Demings on the supreme danger of “white supremacists,” who, he said, “are engaged in unprecedented outreach” on campuses. Examples were not forthcoming, except for repeated references to the banana incident. Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC), to his credit, took on Lawrence’s “kumbaya opening testimony,” noting that Lawrence had been president of Brandeis University when plans to award Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree were canceled. Meadows asked Lawrence if this had been a correct decision; Lawrence said yes, but insisted it had nothing to do with free speech. Hirsi Ali, he explained, had once said “that Islam should be crushed.” For Lawrence, apparently, that speech act had been so hateful that it went beyond mere speech.
Ben Shapiro proved a refreshing relief from these three participants’ equivocation and logic-chopping. He got right to the point: at many colleges, speech rights are distributed in accordance with how many victim groups one belongs to. “Offensive” language that challenges left-wing victimology is viewed as equivalent to physical violence – thus justifying actual violence in response. When that violence does erupt, administrators “look the other way” because they share the perpetrators’ ideology. Shapiro had an illuminating back-and-forth with Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands), a black woman who repeated at length the details of the banana incident – which had already been recounted exhaustively – and who began a sentence by saying: “Free speech is important, but….” (Later, Robin Kelly [D-IL], a former “diversity trainer” at Bradley University, echoed her almost verbatim: “I agree with free speech and all that, but….”) Citing “Critical Race Theory” – a nonsensical so-called discipline that seeks to give academic legitimacy to obsessive anti-white prejudice – Plaskett asked Shapiro about his “white privilege.” He forcefully shot her down, saying that charges of “white privilege” have no basis in reality and do not amount to “a rational political argument.” I quote Plaskett’s response verbatim: “Well, I think it’s a demonstrable evidence that through society’s demographics that being white has societal privileges that being black does not.”
The fifth person testifying before the committee was comedian Adam Carolla, who was there because he and radio host Dennis Prager have made No Safe Spaces, a forthcoming film on free speech. Carolla (who noted that he himself never attended college) testified that about fifteen years ago he had appeared on “a hundred college campuses with nary a word of negativity, no safe spaces, and no stuffed animals being handed out”; recently, however, he was invited to speak at Cal State Northridge only to have the administration cancel it. What’s happened? His answer: we’ve mistakenly decided that if we “put kids in a bubble,” they’ll “come out stronger” at the other end. “These are 18- and 19-year-old kids that are at these college campuses,” he said. “They grew up dipped in Purell, playing soccer games where they never kept score…and we’re asking them to be mature.” He called for “the adults to start being the adults.” Just as it’s necessary “to expose your children to germs and dirt and the environment to build up their immune system,” he argued, you need to expose them to challenging ideas, too.
Later, Carolla offered a wonderful riposte to Plaskett by describing his own “white privilege”:
I graduated North Hollywood High with a 1.7 GPA. I could not find a job. I walked to a fire station in North Hollywood. I was nineteen. I was living in the garage of my family home. My mom was on welfare and food stamps and I said, “Can I get a job as a fireman?” And they said, “No, because you’re not black, Hispanic, or a woman. We’ll see you in about seven years.” And I went to a construction site and dug ditches and picked up garbage for the next seven years. I got a letter in the mail, sent to my father’s house, saying: “Your time has come to do the written exam for the L.A Fire Department. I took it, and I was standing in line and I had a young woman of color standing behind me in line, and I turned around and said to her, “Just out of curiosity, when did you sign up to become a fireman, or person, because I did it seven years ago?” She said, “Wednesday.” That is an example of my white privilege.
Carolla was by far the best thing about the hearing. He brought the whole thing down to earth. He made it real. He spoke glowingly about the role of mutual ribbing in friendships, and the importance of a healthy sense of humor – the opposite of snowflake-type self-seriousness and oversensitivity – to human interaction. He observed that the kind of real diversity he encountered in his own early career had shaped attitudes on his part that are lacking among many college students – precisely because (“diversity training” or not) they’ve had such limited exposure to people with different views and backgrounds. I don’t know whom Carolla voted for in the presidential election, but he embodied the Trump base – hard-working whites who were born into the working class, who had to make their own breaks, and who are sick to death of being told they have privilege. Not least, Corolla made members of both parties laugh – and that laughter itself felt like a powerful retort to the humorless ideology at the root of the campus crisis.
I was impressed by several of the House members. Dave Brat (R-VA), an economist by training, spoke rather eloquently about the idea of the university and its betrayal by postmodernists who have cut off all connection with the entire philosophical tradition. Raskin fondly recalled that audience members at the Lincoln-Douglas debates heckled the candidates – but their heckling had been a good-natured, useful way of raising serious questions, and afterwards they had quietly listened to the candidates’ answers. Was there any way, he asked, of restoring this “art of heckling”? I’ve never admired Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), a former ACLU honcho who has represented the District of Columbia in Congress since the Pleistocene Era, but I have to give her one thumbs-up for her insistence that no black student should ever try to shut down anyone’s freedom of speech – after all, she noted, it was that very freedom that enabled Frederick Douglass to travel all over the U.S. speaking out against slavery even while it was still in existence. For heaven’s sake, somebody even mentioned Friedrich Hayek.
At its best, the hearing provided an impressive display of at least some House members engaged in intelligent, informed exchange about an urgent social issue. Whether the hearing will make any difference is another question. The mainstream media ignored it, and there was little mention by the participating lawmakers of any substantive action that might be taken to rescue free speech at colleges – most of which, after all, receive federal funds. But a hearing is better than nothing. And who knows? It might just be a start.